Central Asia is perhaps the best place on earth to explore the reality of the phrase ‘the sweep of history’. Populations, conquerors, cultures and ideas have traversed the region’s steppes, deserts and mountain passes for millennia. Nothing symbolises Central Asia’s role as a conduit between cultures better than the Silk Road, through which the great civilisations of the East and the West first made contact. But Central Asia was, and is, more than just a middle ground, and its cultural history is far more than the sum of the influences brought from the East and the West.
Uzbekistan's literary canon is a reflection of its diverse linguistic and cultural heritage. In addition to writings in Uzbek, some of the finest works of Persian/Tajik literature were written in Samarkand and Bukhara, and in the 20th century writers seeking a Soviet Union-wide audience for their work were compelled to write in Russian.
Early literature in Uzbekistan developed as an oral medium: travelling bards and local storytellers were important figures in local communities, their heroic tales an essential part of weddings, funerals and other festivals. The genre includes epic poems, known as dastan, in which the protagonist must protect his tribe and homeland from foreign invaders. Famous epic poems in this style include Kyor-ogly and Alpamysh, a celebration of the bravery of Uzbek warriors.
A significant proportion of Uzbekistan's classical literature dates from the medieval period. The writer and philosopher Abu Abdullah Rudaki is considered to be the father of Tajik literature. Along with Ferdowsi (934-1020), author of the epic poem Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), and the scientist Hussayn ibn Abu Ali ibn Sina (980-1037), known in the West as Avicenna, he is a pillar of classical Tajik literature, and rightly commemorated with street names and monuments across both Uzbekistan and beyond.
The 11th century also produced didactic works based on religious norms of Islamic morality. Well-known poems include Knowledge, Providing Happiness (1069) by Yusuf Balasaguni and The Gift of Truths by Akhmad Yugnaki, and especially The Dictionary of Turkic Dialects (1072-74), composed by Makhmud Kashgari. The first dictionaries and grammars also date from this era.
With vast sums spent on patronising the arts, and Samarkand serving as the imperial centre, it is of little surprise that the golden age of literature was under the Timurids. Both religious and secular works were produced in large numbers, the latter category encompassing everything from fiction to medical treatises and astronomical observations. The language of court, and therefore of much of the literature, was Chagatai Turkish, and the most famous writer and cultural figure to emerge from these years is undoubtedly Alisher Navoi, though Zakhiriddin Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India, also wrote his autobiography in the Chagatai language during this period.
The 20th century gave birth to a wide number of important authors writing in Russian as well as local languages. Khamza Khakimzade Niyazi, Sadriddin Aini, Abdulla Kadiri and Gafur Gulyam all rose to prominence during this period, with organisations such as the Uzbekistan Writers Union actively promoting their work. Many of their homes and collected papers are preserved in house museums around the country; these are well worth visiting if you have an interest in Soviet literature.
Uzbekistan has a number of contemporary writers, though few of these are known outside Uzbekistan as their works are rarely available in translation. Electronic publishing may, of course, change this. Salomat Vafo, a young woman from Khorezm, has had some critical acclaim overseas for her 2004 novel The Empire of Mystery, though due to its discussion of intimate relationships, the Uzbekistan Writers Union initially tried to prevent its publication.
In this section (check menu on the left) you can also find and read recommended books on Central Asia and its history.